Coronavirus supplies: 39 million N95 masks at center of fraud investigation

SAN FRANCISCO -- Millions of masks thought to be located for California healthcare workers won't materialize after all and now federal law enforcement is investigating the suspected fraud.

A spokesperson for the union that located the supplier says the suspected fraud is "very disappointing."

For weeks healthcare workers across California have been calling for more Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) as they battle the novel coronavirus pandemic.

After launching an exhaustive search, Service Employees International Union - United Healthcare Workers West announced two weeks ago it had done the near-impossible, locating 39 million N95 masks for hospitals and government agencies.

In an emailed statement to the I-TEAM, an SEIU-UHW Spokesperson writes, "Our role was to connect those who needed PPE with a potential supplier."

Included on the list to purchase the N95 masks from the 39 million secured was the state of California, Dignity Health, Kaiser Permanente, Stanford Health Care, Sutter Health and Santa Clara County.

Once the connection was made, the union says it was up to those who needed the equipment to work out details like quantities, payment and delivery.

In a stunning turn of events, health care systems quickly learned they would never actually get their hands on those much-needed supplies.

Kaiser Permanente told the I-Team, they placed orders for 6 million N95 masks with a U.S. based supplier working with a seller outside the U.S. "Despite multiple requests, the supplier repeatedly failed to provide reliable information about where we could verify and inspect the shipment," wrote a spokesperson.

Kaiser withdrew and no money exchanged hands. The spokesperson says, "We learned shortly afterward that the supplier never had possession of the masks."

Sutter Health says they didn't finalize a transaction with the supplier either.

Stanford Health Care made the decision "not to pursue."

Santa Clara County says its requests for N95 masks were fulfilled by the state or the County of Santa Clara Public Health warehouse.

An SEIU-UHW spokesperson now says, "... we desperately wanted to see the purchases come through. But the fact is that this situation cries out for government action ..."

The union gave the supplier's name to the Federal Coronavirus Task Force looking into problems with PPE.

Kaiser Permanente says they are also cooperating with federal law enforcement in their investigation of suspected fraud in this case.

The union says they'll keep trying to do whatever they can including connecting hospitals with supplies. Still, the union spokesperson also says, the supply chain for this type of equipment is fraught with problems.
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